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January 14, 2013

Slate: Can this man save pinball?

(Continued)

LAKEWOOD, N.J. —

But around 1986, the arcade bubble burst. And though pinball had a brief resurgence a few years later — 1992's "The Addams Family," the game I played obsessively in my college rec center, sold more than 20,000 units, making it the most-popular machine since the 1930s — that market collapsed again in the mid-1990s, leading the majority of manufacturers to abandon the business for good.

Pinball succumbed to the same forces that killed the video arcade. In the 1970s, arcade games far outclassed the entertainment competition, which consisted primarily of three channels of lousy network television, staring contests and throwing rocks at cars. But with the spread of home consoles and cable TV (and eventually ubiquitous Web access and smartphones), paying to play video games at some retail establishment felt inconvenient and outdated, like carrying a boombox on your shoulder or using an outhouse.

Pinball in particular became a relic from a pre-modern age. Compared with simple video games, which require little maintenance, pinball machines are loaded with mechanical parts that inevitably break down. Video games also generally take up less space than bulky pinball cabinets, and the advent of multi-joystick (and multi-steering-wheel) play allowed operators to earn more than they ever could from a one-player-at-a-time, flipper-based machine. As pinball lost its cachet, then, arcade owners happily shoved aside the less profitable, more aggravating machines in favor of reliable revenue generators such as driving games and games involving spine ripping.

With pinball largely banished from public spaces (unless you live in a hipster haven like Portland, Ore.), most of today's machines end up in the hands of collectors. Chicago's Stern Pinball — whose website declares it "the only maker of REAL pinball games on the planet!!" — produces three new titles each year, with recent games including Transformers, AC/DC, X-Men, and Avengers. According to company president Gary Stern, his firm sold more than 5,000 games in 2012. Though Stern says business was up last year, those numbers are bracing — that means an entire year's run of today's machines adds up to 25 percent of the sales of a blockbuster like The Addams Family.

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